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Fintan O’Toole: Believers in a united Ireland without trade-offs are as bad as Brexiteers

Irish Times poll shows widespread belief that Irish unity can be achieved without sacrifice

As I was growing up, I became aware that there were a lot of bad marriages around. And most of them were bad because the husbands never quite accepted that they were in fact married.

They had always been brought up to regard married life as a good thing – natural, even inevitable. A man ought to have a wife, kids, the house, the lot. They liked the cooked meals and the regular sex and some bits of fatherhood, like giving orders and going to football matches. They just didn’t go for the whole partnership thing.

In as many ways as possible, these men continued to live as if they were single. They maintained their full, card-carrying membership of that very Irish homosocial group: the lads.

After work, they met the lads in the pub. On a Friday or a Saturday, they would take the wife out to the same pub where, ideally, the wives would soon form their own group and the lads could resume their usual colloquy on football, distinguished from the rest of the week only by the need to send the ladies over some drinks now and then.

British politics and even the very notion of Britain are in a period of turmoil that could last for at least another decade

There’s a real danger that, for many citizens of both sexes in the Republic, a united Ireland can be conceived as that kind of marriage. It is good, natural, inevitable – so long as the breaking of established habits does not extend much further than sending over the odd G&T to the Protestants on a Friday night.

To be clear: a united Ireland in some form is not just an entirely legitimate aspiration, it is an eventuality for which we should all prepare even if we don’t particularly want it.

The reason is that it is a known unknown. The Belfast Agreement of 1998 – and this is one of its weaknesses – is extraordinarily vague about the circumstances in which a Border poll should be held in Northern Ireland.

The power to call it lies with the secretary of state for Northern Ireland: “If at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”

Now, we've had in recent years some Northern Ireland secretaries you wouldn't trust to form a judgment on whether the sun appears likely to come up in the morning. In the last decade, Hillsborough Castle has been graced by the presence of Owen Paterson, who recently quit politics in disgrace; Theresa Villiers, a zealot for a no-deal Brexit; and Karen Bradley who blithely admitted that she did not know that "people who are nationalists don't vote for unionist parties and vice versa".

More broadly, British politics and even the very notion of Britain are in a period of turmoil that could last for at least another decade. A polity that has put itself in the absurd position of having Boris Johnson as prime minister can't be trusted to be rational about its own future – never mind ours.

The key to the constitutional future of the island of Ireland has been left with the neighbour who smokes a lot of dope and occasionally drops acid. We can’t be sure that they won’t use it sometime to trash the place.

The big lie of Brexit was and is that there was no need to weigh the good against the bad, no calculation of costs and benefits. There was just cakeism

Thus, even leaving aside ideals and aspirations, when it comes to a Border poll, Irish people need to be thinking very carefully about what might happen, how it may unfold, and what kinds of settlement are realistically possible. The results of last week’s Irish Times poll, and of other studies, do not suggest that this happening.

Before we can think about what a good process of deliberation on a major question about the very nature of a polity should be, we should consider its opposite. What does a bad process look like?

Irish people don’t have to look very far for the answer. Most of us would agree that a bad process looks like the Brexit referendum of 2016. Brexit itself was not necessarily an ignoble proposition: every country is free to leave the European Union. What made it ignoble was the insistence that it had no downside.

Every conceivable proposal for major change in the essential nature of a state has advantages and disadvantages. That’s simply because these changes are part of life and life is complicated.

The big lie of Brexit was and is that there was no need to weigh the good against the bad, no calculation of costs and benefits. There was just cakeism – we can leave the club and retain all the advantages of being in it.

Irish people like to mock that attitude but are we not in danger of recreating it for ourselves? Is a united Ireland not also framed in too many minds as a cakeist proposition? The primary symptom of cakeism is the refusal to think about trade-offs, to say what you are willing to give in order to get what you want.

The Irish Times poll suggests that by far the most popular answer is bugger all. Even small symbolic changes like a new flag or national anthem for a united Ireland are emphatically rejected. The possibility of paying higher taxes as the price of reclaiming the fourth green field is as acceptable as anthrax.

This feels awfully like what the Brexiteers promised British voters; everything you don’t like will be gone but everything you do like will stay the same. It is no less absurd.

A malign interpretation of these findings is that Irish people don’t actually believe in the pluralism of their own Constitution, with its aspiration to embrace the people of the island “in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”. Rather, they expect those in the North who have a British identity to become “people like us”.

A more benign, and hopefully more accurate, explanation, is that they haven’t yet given this whole thing much thought. But we don’t have the luxury of thoughtlessness. Events are in motion – demographic change within Northern Ireland, the crisis of Britishness – that could force huge decisions on us in the 2030s.

There’s an iron rule of politics: don’t trust anyone who tells you that you will get what you want without paying any price for it. If they’re not lying to you, they’re lying to themselves.

Most people accept in their own lives that good relationships are founded on give and take. It’s time to wake up and realise that there will be no marriage of true minds on this island that does not start with the same acceptance.